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Volume 20 No. 42

In Depth

Concessionaires are innovating to better handle peak sales periods.

Sports food vendors have battled long lines at concession stands for years. For the concessionaires, slow speed of service is not conducive to generating revenue. For the fans, nothing is more frustrating than missing a chunk of the game waiting in line to buy a hot dog and a beer.

The issue is “the one thing everybody can agree on ... fans, teams and food providers,” said Jaime Faulkner, CEO of E15, the analytics group owned by Levy Restaurants.

But easy solutions for cutting wait times are rarer than a 50-cent beer, for many reasons.

For one thing, the dynamics of congestion at concessions stands depend on the sport, vendors say. Baseball’s leisurely pace provides many opportunities to grab food and drink between innings. Football, basketball and hockey have fewer breaks, however, which means stands can get slammed.

Plus, every building is unique in its design and flow, presenting operational challenges regardless of the event and forcing vendors to make adjustments.

“Our challenge is how do we make it better and minimize it and make it less of an inconvenience for people,” Sportservice President Carlos Bernal said.

To resolve the issue, food providers are exploring new technology for self-serve stations and using research data to support the reconfiguration of food stands.

Some of this may sound familiar. Self-ordering kiosks have been in place at MLB ballparks since at least 2005, when Centerplate tested a system at old Yankee Stadium. The technology provider, Fanunlimited, eventually went out of business, but the technology brought efficiency to concessions with limited points of sale at the New York Yankees’ former home, said Dan Smith, president of Legends Hospitality, who worked for Centerplate at the old ballpark.

“The problem in existing stadiums is unless you’re designed for the proper fulfillment, you’re back to square one,” Smith said. “If you don’t have the production coming through the windows, people are still waiting in line.”

In theory, self-serve streamlines the process by having fans make their selections on a touch-screen kiosk and swipe their credit card to pay for the order, which is sent directly to the kitchen behind the concession stand for preparation and delivery.

The downside to self-serve includes the kiosks’ limited menus. Expanding the technology to cover a greater variety of food options defeats the purpose by slowing the process for fans having to make more decisions before placing their order, food consultant Chris Bigelow said.

In addition, in some markets, vendors face issues with unions over the potential loss of jobs due to automation. Plus, some food providers feel many fans still prefer personal interaction with concessions staff and bartenders operating beer stands (see related story).

“Like everything else, you have a variety of applications that you introduce, and not all of them are going to be home runs,” Bernal said. “We kind of joke about it: If it doesn’t work, let’s fail fast [and] do something else.”

Both Levy Restaurants and Aramark are testing the newest generation of self-serve stations at ballparks after rollouts last season.

At Dodger Stadium in 2016, Levy split in half a large barbecue stand in the outfield featuring 20 points of sale. One side was converted to a self-serve kiosk where fans placed their orders by selecting items on touch screens. The other half was kept intact as a traditional walk-up stand.

After the season, E15’s data showed the self-serve section produced a higher volume of transactions per 15-minute increments. Compared with the walkup portion, the average check size was $5 higher for self-serve, driven largely by dinner baskets, Faulkner said.

“Amazon is one of our clients and they will tell you when people have the ability to place the order themselves, they order more items, for whatever reason,” she said. “We see the same thing with food and beverage in sports.”

The kiosks, produced by point-of-sale supplier Appetize in a partnership with Levy and the Dodgers, have expanded to other parts of the ballpark, which at 56,000 seats is the largest in MLB and gives them ample opportunities for more testing.

Aramark’s efforts at self-serve include Fastball Foods, with arrows to help guide fans through the ordering and pickup process, at Minute Maid Park in Houston; and Zoom Food at Rogers Centre in Toronto (below).
Photos by: ARAMARK

The Dodgers like the technology, which puts the fans in control of their experience at the concession stand, though team officials support additional testing before deciding whether to make it a permanent feature, said Tucker Kain, the team’s chief financial officer.

Aramark has seen an uptick in sales as well for its self-serve kiosks at stadiums. Last year, the vendor introduced its version of self-serve at Minute Maid Park, and has since expanded it to Citizens Bank Park and Rogers Centre, plus NRG Stadium, where it was tested for the 2017 Super Bowl.

Last season at the Astros’ ballpark, the average check at the new self-serve layout on the mezzanine level increased by 13 percent and transactions during peak periods jumped by 64 percent over 2015 at the same location, said Danielle Lazor, Aramark’s vice president of design and development.

The purpose behind the system, branded as Fastball Foods in Houston and Zoom Food in Philadelphia and Toronto, was to see whether it could escalate speed of service during peak periods, Lazor said.

The idea was to expand the point-of-sale system apart from the stand to a convenient spot within reach of more customers. Because no transactions are conducted at the stand itself, all that square footage is freed up as cooking space, she said.

“What we realized was the footprints of the concession areas in the buildings are pretty standard and we don’t have the opportunity to expand beyond those footprints,” Lazor said. “Essentially, what we’ve done in some cases is more than double point-of-sale by adding these self-ordering kiosks.”

At Minute Maid Park, there are two teams of cooks and chefs working Fastball Foods and everything is still cooked to order, similar to when it was laid out as a traditional concession stand, she said.

Most important, fans can still see their items being prepared at the self-serve stands. Those visuals remain important to customers and are one thing Lazor thinks can pose a barrier for those resisting mobile ordering and in-seat service.

“Even if you’re ordering at a kiosk, you’re there, you’re seeing the food being made fresh and it’s getting to our fans faster,” Lazor said. “There’s still a lot of value in that piece.”

Aramark’s self-serve system is a three-step process. Fans place their order at the kiosk on a digital menu board that informs them how to slide their credit card and add items to the order. The machine then spits out a receipt and the fans walk to the stand to pick up their order.

For those ordering soft drinks, the final step is arriving at the self-serve soda fountain at the end of the stand to complete their order. At this point, there are no free refills but it’s something the vendor is considering for the future, Aramark officials said.

Part of making the system work is making sure fans know how to use it. Aramark has digital boards and fixed signs to guide users through the process.

“What we’re hanging our hat on is the ability to have your order ready, due to increased expediting capabilities and efficiencies in the stand … and you’re not waiting in an additional line,” Lazor said. “It’s a quick pickup.”

Levy Restaurants took a tack opposite from self-serve for reconfiguring concession stands at AmericanAirlines Arena. As part of a test, the vendor reduced points of sale at a core menu stand in Miami to streamline the process for getting fans’ orders filled.

About three years ago, E15, in conjunction with the Miami Heat’s business intelligence division, analyzed the stand’s transactions and discovered that 70 percent of all sales were beverage and snack items with no cooked items ordered. The sales data showed that most fans were waiting to buy drinks behind others placing orders for burgers, which take longer to prepare.

The solution was to simplify the layout, with one point-of-sale reserved for drinks and snacks only and a new single-line structure. One Levy employee, serving as the stand’s “captain,” stands at the head of the line to direct patrons to the correct space for their order (see diagram below).

Three years later, most of the arena’s permanent concession stands have been converted to the same layout, and wait times have been cut in half, said Kim Stone, the Miami Heat’s executive vice president and general manager of the facility.

As part of the reconfiguration, Levy adjusted its labor force to fit the new model. With fewer cashiers required, some who used to work the register focus on filling orders to expedite the process. More beer portables have been added to support the main stands, which also helps reduce wait times.

“Now, it’s similar to a TSA queue line where it snakes back and forth,” Stone said. “Psychologically, people see the line and think it’s longer, but it’s not a deterrent. It goes faster and moves very quickly.”

It may seem like a simple conversion to increase speed of service, but without the data supporting the change, it would have been guesswork, according to Faulkner.

“We had a 50 percent reduction in point-of-sale for those stands, which goes against everything we can think of,” she said. “We really let the math dictate the setup … and it’s been successful. Now what we’re doing is taking that concept and starting to test it elsewhere to see if we get the same results.”

Research by E15, the analytics group owned by Levy Restaurants, shows single-line queues move faster but aren’t perceived that way.

It’s getting close to last call for one self-serve beer system in place at sports facilities.

Two years ago, DraftServ, a portable self-serve beer kiosk allowing fans to pour their own beers measured by the ounce, was the hot gadget in sports. Multiple concessionaires tested the system to help reduce beer lines, which typically produce the longest waits at arenas and stadiums.

But in most cases, low adoption, driven in part by weather conditions, put a damper on the system and it’s disappearing from sports venues, according to teams and vendors.

Delaware North Sportservice has DraftServ units pouring craft beers in a bar at Progressive Field. Overall, though, the trend has never caught on, in part because fans like personal interaction with bartenders, concessionaires say.

In 2015, Delaware North Sportservice installed 20 DraftServ kiosks in 10 locations at Great American Ball Park after testing the system at the 2014 MLB All-Star Game at Target Field. Two seasons later, every machine has been pulled from the Cincinnati Reds’ stadium, Sportservice officials confirmed.

The systems are not inexpensive. DraftServ kiosks cost $7,000 to $15,000 apiece depending on the size of the machines. The high-end price is for the large, mobile refrigerated unit that can hold 80 kegs and has 28 taps.

“We loved the idea but the equipment did not function well in our hot summer environment,” Reds Chief Operating Officer Phil Castellini said. “It was a challenge maintaining the beer product and keeping it refrigerated. We may revisit it in the future.”

Aramark tested DraftServ at a few locations over the past few years but never saw it gain traction at its accounts, said Danielle Lazor, Aramark’s vice president of design and development.

“I think it’s fun in environments that are more private and enclosed … but fans are still looking for that element of personal service,” Lazor said. “We haven’t seen anyone get excited about it. There’s a ‘messy factor’ too that’s different than soda and I think that’s part of the low adoption.”

For Spectra Food Services & Hospitality, the 3.5 percent fees it would have to pay credit card companies for all DraftServ transactions were one reason why it shied away from using the system at its venues, including Oakland Coliseum and Avaya Stadium, company vice president Jay Satenspiel said.

“You might be saving labor [costs] on the top, but you’re paying it back in the fees and you’re really not picking up the speed of service that you want,” said Satenspiel, whose research of DraftServ included discussions with competitors using the system.

In addition, Satenspiel agreed with Lazor about the personal interaction component. Self-service in general removes the experience of communicating with food service workers, he said.

“That’s part of the event,” Satenspiel said. “When you’re at a ballpark, half the fun is [shooting the bull] with the bartender. Now, you walk up to a machine, put a card in, make the selection, push a button and walk away. It’s like filling your car with gas. There’s got to be the right balance.”

Concessionaires haven’t given up on the concept. Sportservice still has DraftServ pouring local craft beers at The Corner, an indoor bar in right field at Progressive Field, where the Cleveland Indians play. Levy Restaurants, which tested DraftServ at United Center in 2015 for the NBA and NHL playoffs before removing it from the Chicago arena, continues to use the mobile unit for major events such as the Kentucky Derby and Ryder Cup.

Levy Restaurants continues to use DraftServ mobile units at big events like the Kentucky Derby, where the system works more naturally among the large crowds in a social setting.

At those two events, where large crowds gather in more of a social setting, it’s a way to control service and the system falls more in line with how people interact in big groups at horse tracks and golf courses, said Jaime Faulkner, CEO of E15, Levy Restaurants’ analytics group.

“In an arena or stadium, fans want to go to the bathroom, get their beer and food and get back to their seat,” she said. “But having said that, any time you put the order and pay into the hands of the fan, you’re way better off … because that’s what they’re used to in everyday life.”

On the flip side, the growing trend of self-serve soft drink machines in sports is where Aramark sees things heading in the future, Lazor said.

“We’re really looking at how we evolve this model and look into customization,” he said. “What we’re finding is fans are mixing and matching different combinations of soda. There’s some pleasure that people get out of that [and] something we hadn’t contemplated.”

Mobile in-seat ordering at sports events began to gain traction in the industry in 2010, but the offering was undoubtedly ahead of its time. Connectivity and fulfillment were erratic and rates of use by fans were low, remaining below 5 percent of total concessions volume in many markets for several years.

Fast forward to 2017, and the mobile, on-demand economy has finally caught up to what several concessionaires and technology companies first envisioned at the beginning of the decade. Hundreds of pro and college teams now offer some sort of mobile-based food and souvenir ordering, enabled by an array of platforms. And operators are focused on driving further user adoption and optimizing back-of-house operations to prepare for further shifts in fan buying patterns.

“Back in 2010, we were definitely early, and we were wondering if people even want this and was it a solution in search of a problem,” said Brandon Lloyd, president of Bypass, an Austin-based provider of point-of-sale software that was an early entrant in mobile in-seat ordering.

“The model of using your phone to order concessions at a game, like you would a cup of coffee or an Uber, is now proven. But it’s now taking on a lot of different flavors. Some teams are just focused on mobile payments. Some do full delivery. Others have express lanes, kiosks or a combination of those elements. The thing we’re focused on now is building up the ubiquity and frequency of mobile ordering,” Lloyd said.

Despite all that availability, though, concessionaires say the actual execution of mobile in-seat ordering remains hit and miss around much of the industry.

Mobile “is the future, but I think what it’s going to take at some point in time … and the reason why it’s successful in the travel and airline industry, is they more or less have forced people to travel that way, and we have not done that in our industry,” said Carlos Bernal, Sportservice president. “We still provide a lot of different options for people to transact with cash or however they want to do business with us.”

Also complicating the adoption of mobile in-seat ordering is the need in many markets to download multiple applications, something many fans don’t want to do.

“We’ve been looking to white-label our technology into the team or venue apps and try to make it seamless as possible for the fan,” said Carl Mittleman, president of Aramark Sports & Entertainment. “Because any time you create a barrier, like asking somebody to download another app, you’re diminishing your take-up on this.”

Technology allowing fans to stay in their seats and have food, beverage and souvenirs brought to them also runs somewhat counter to accelerating fan trends toward migrating around stadiums and arenas during events.

“There is still a behavior pattern of our consumer that involves getting up and moving around,” Mittleman said. “Fans want to stretch their legs, sample various areas around a ballpark.”

But Lloyd and others around the industry who are bullish on the future of mobile in-seat ordering point to the mushrooming success of elements such as Starbucks’ Mobile Order and Pay outside of sports venues. The coffee giant says in about 1,200 of its stores around the country, mobile ordering represents more than 20 percent of transactions at peak times. Other major restaurant chains such as McDonald’s are also investing heavily in mobile ordering, which is in turn influencing the rise of the technology at sports venues.

“There’s a real comfort level now we’re seeing in fans being able to customize their order and do it themselves,” on their device, said Max Roper, chief executive for California-based point-of-sale vendor Appetize. “You can pretty much order anything from your phone now, so that really helps our environment.”

Roper, however, agreed that the mobile in-seat ordering, for all its recent advancement, still frequently suffers from a lack of marketing.

“The venue networks have improved greatly, and stock and fulfillment is not as much of an issue now. But a lot of these services still do not have the best level of awareness,” he said.

Added Legends President of Hospitality Dan Smith: “The next 12 months there will be a concerted effort for concessionaires to push the technology. Labor costs are rising, and we want to get more efficient in our operations and promote a better fan experience.”

Data from mobile in-seat ordering frequently shows an uptick in average per caps compared with that particular facility overall. Appetize, for example, says its mobile-based orders are typically 10 percent to 20 percent higher than those made normally at concession stands, and 80 percent of the orders include alcohol, which has one of the highest profit margins at any sports facility.

Staff writer Don Muret contributed to this report.

The strategy behind cutting the lines in front of concession stands extends to the cooking technology behind the counter.

At Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a challenging building for food providers because of its age and design, Spectra Food Services & Hospitality has installed ventless fryers this season at multiple stands offering fried chicken and other fried items.

The fast-cooking brick pizza oven, above, and ventless fryers help keep lines short at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
The fryers contain a chamber with filters that work with electricity to eliminate the heat, grease and smoke escaping from traditional fryers, said Jay Satenspiel, a company vice president. The old-school fryers don’t work well in a 50-year-old stadium made largely of concrete where the byproducts of fried foods have no place to go, Satenspiel said.

Going ventless allowed Spectra to expand the number of french fry stands at the coliseum to five locations over the previous two stands in the limited areas with proper ventilation. It has allowed the vendor to expand its menu for Oakland A’s games to include a chicken and waffle sandwich and loaded tater tots, which have been a big hit, Satenspiel said. Bottom line: Developing more fry stands using

the ventless units has helped reduce lines by giving Spectra the flexibility to reach a greater number of fans who no longer have to walk halfway around the stadium to find those items.

“If I had to crack open a cement wall and build a whole new duct system, you’re looking at an exorbitant amount of money, and there are certain structures like the Coliseum where it’s not possible,” Satenspiel said. “But we wanted to add frying capacity, and it’s helped us expand our variety and provide a new offering to the fans.”

Elsewhere, Spectra has the ventless fryers at 70-year-old Jones AT&T Stadium, the home of Texas Tech’s football team in Lubbock, Satenspiel said.

There is a greater cost to going ventless. Those fryers run $15,000 to $20,000 a unit compared with $5,000 to $6,000 for the traditional system. For Spectra, the additional investment is worth it due to the cooking flexibility, he said.

In another example of using cooking methods to cut wait times back in Oakland, the new brick pizza oven at the rebranded Shibe Park Tavern, the stadium’s old west side club, cooks hand-tossed pizzas in five minutes from the time fans place their orders. The spot has become one of the busiest food destinations in the building.

Spectra controls the process through a buzzer system similar to restaurants. If it’s crowded, Spectra gives patrons a buzzer while they’re waiting for their pizza, and they can have a beer and watch baseball on TV. The seven-inch pizzas sell for $10 to $11, Satenspiel said.